Fundamentalism Shifting from Levant to Caucasus

Monday, June 29, 2015

Seyyedeh Motahhareh Hosseini
Assistant Professor of Political Science & Expert on Central Asia and Caucasus Affairs

There has been a live streak of relations between the old land of the Levant (including the present-day Turkey, Syria and part of Iraq) and the Caucasus region. Sufism was the central focus of those relations, but they were also marked with a set of political, social, cultural, scientific and economic events. This region has, therefore, continued its cultural and religious life through expansion of the religious culture in the form of Sufism, which traveled from Iran to Iraq and therefrom to Syria, Turkey and then South Caucasus. The other supplementary half of this current was the cultural and religious current that was initiated in the greater Khorasan region and moved to Central Asia and from there to North Caucasus. This cultural crescent was formed by Muslims in the neighborhood of Christianity.

Today, both halves of this crescent have turned into a breeding ground for the growth of Salafi current, as well as extremist and violent Islamism, which excommunicates other people. On the one hand, through the path that crosses Pakistan, Afghanistan and Fergana valley, reformist ideas of Sunni Muslims find their way into Uzbekistan and are propagated across Central Asia before reaching Caucasus along with a stream of narcotics, and then continue their way toward Europe. On the other hand, Middle Eastern crises have spread to this region through Iraq, Syria, Turkey, and South Caucasus and have generated a great wave of extremist and violent emotions and approaches in such critical regions as Chechnya and Dagestan before gradually creeping into Abkhazia, Ossetia, and Balkaria.

Arabs in Caucasus form a new active group, which has been created on the basis of Sufist and Muslim Brotherhood currents, but the ideas that they carry are not moderate ideas of Sufis, but the radical ideas of Salafi school of thought. Some recent studies have reached the conclusion that emergence of international fighters in the Levant has deep historical roots and dates back to the time when Ottomans were fighting tsarist Russia.

The factor that has made this disorderly historical situation more acute is the continuation of score settling of the tsarist era under the new Russian President Vladimir Putin and in the course of Chechnya wars. The presence of people like Chechen leader, Ramzan Kadyrov, and his military and security apparatus in North Caucasus, has kept war and bloodletting going on. Therefore, extremism and fundamentalism in Caucasus and transfer of violence from the Middle East to Caucasus and vice versa are not founded on the basis of Islamic thought, but have their roots in ethnic, geopolitical and political tensions. Even international order serves to set the direction of this regional current or has serious impact on it. Today, control of extremist Islamist currents has turned into a tool in the hands of the United States and the NATO against Russia (in Caucasus), a tool in the hands of Russia against China (in Xinjiang), a tool in the hands of the West and the United States against Shia Iran (through its Sunni neighbors) and so forth. In fact, no serious, coordinated and resilient determination has been observed on the part of Islamic or Western countries to control it, and basically speaking, nobody thinks that they are capable of controlling Islamist extremism.

On the one hand and as a result of unfavorable economic conditions, Russia’s security grasp, and local ethnic tensions, Muslims in Caucasus are looking for a channel to express their protests. On the other hand, a combination of the Communist legacy in Caucasus and anti-West fundamentalist ideas imported from Iraq and Syria has caused people in Caucasus, who are inclined toward Islamic ideas, to opt for very extremist approaches. Judging from recent developments, and given the forecast by a group of international relations scholars who believe that parts of North Caucasus will be separated from Russia in coming decades, and given the tense atmosphere in Caucasus as a result of incongruous local policies, the influence of Islamist fundamentalism in this region is expected to be on the rise throughout the next decade.

The Republic of Azerbaijan has attuned its policies to those of the United States and is a Muslim and Shia country, while Georgia, which has attuned its policies with the European Union, is a Christian country at odds with Russian orthodox faith. Armenians are opposed to Russia, have an undeveloped economy, and are incapable of close cooperation with the European Union and the United States. This heterogeneous mix has been combined with the tense geographical conditions in North Caucasus and has made the region prone to acceptance of all kinds of extremist and reformist ideas. The crisis in Ukraine, which has securitized relations between Russia and the West and has weakened Russian economy, has further added to this tension. In this way, since Caucasus is surrounded by Muslim countries where fundamentalist ideas are getting stronger than any time before, there is no doubt that fertile grounds for geopolitical tension in Caucasus will continue to increase in number and intensity.

Key Words: Fundamentalism, Levant, Caucasus, Central Asia, Muslims, Christianity, Geopolitical Tension, Hosseini

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*Photo Credit:, Cyprus Mail

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